COMMENTARY: Meat in a Tube

Cultured Meat Confronts Agricultural Pollution

What if meat no longer had a face?
© PETA

The question of buying meat becomes more complicated with each trip to the supermarket. With test tube meat a looming possibility, even vegetarians may want to reconsider their options.

As it stands now, shoppers practically need a tutorial on the meat industry to distinguish between free-range, organic, cloned and other varieties. But scientists are looking to add a more controversial product to the mix, by developing meat which would take animals out of the pasture and into the laboratory. Shelves stocked with in vitro meat are still years away, but the debate is already raging about how mass-produced in vitro meat could affect the environment.

The topic first gained widespread attention when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced its contest granting $1 million to the first developer of test-tube grown meat. The contest guidelines require the meat to maintain the texture and flavor of beef, poultry or pork and be completely indistinguishable from farm-cut meat. The meat must also be commercially viable within the next four years.

Scientists are already growing animal muscle by performing a biopsy of stem cells from a livestock animal and placing them in a nutrient-rich culture. In that medium, the cells divide and multiply. Cells are then attached to a scaffolding structure and placed in a bioreactor to grow.

To prevent cruelty to chickens and other livestock, PETA offered

© PETA

According to a statistical bulletin released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 26 percent of land in the United States is devoted solely to grasslands and pastures. This number continues to increase, but the mass production of test tube meat could have implications for the amount of land devoted to grazing domestic animals and the environment. Widespread usage could impact water quality, disease control and even methane production from flatulent cows.

PETA claims that a reduction of livestock would greatly reduce water pollution caused by the meat industry. In a statement on its web site, GoVeg.com, PETA said "Since factory farms don't have sewage treatment systems as our cities and towns do, this concentrated [excrement] ends up polluting our water, destroying our topsoil, and contaminating our air."

But Shawn Hawkins, a specialist in animal waste management and assistant professor of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science at the University of Tennessee, said that laboratory meat might not be the answer to water pollution. While there are some implications that agriculture is related to the eutrophication of water from nutrients and soil erosion, he said, setting up scientific laboratories might not decrease water pollution.

"Even to feed this process you're going to be generating waste water and applying nutrients in some fashions," he says. "You're still going to generate your water pollution problems related to this."A decreased number of animals grown for human consumption could have long-reaching effects, however. A report released by the United Nations" Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative titled "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options" notes that raising farm animals degrades soil and decreases biodiversity. The report also said a decrease in cattle would mean less grain for feed and more land for crop growth.

But to make an impact, the mass production of test tube meat would have to nearly wipe out the agricultural industry. And the development of laboratories raises its own concerns. "I don't know how these facilities would be set up. But they're going to come with their own problems," Hawkins said.

Prenatal sheep muscle cells have been cultured on a scaffold to create meat.
© Disembodied Cuisine project

Some organizations maintain that less cows, pigs and chickens could also mean a lower production of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that livestock are the largest source of methane from human-related activities.

While environmentalists continue to debate the merits of test-tube meat, Dr. Mike Doyle, the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says there is no denying its benefits for humans. The three most common food borne bacteria are salmonella, campylobacter and E coli 1357, Doyle says. These bacteria generally spread through feces on the hide of the animal or in its environment and growing meat in a laboratory would ultimately eliminate the transfer of these diseases.

"To culture something in the laboratory, normally you can't have [bacteria] present in the environment." he said.

Many of the issues test tube meat confronts are pressing and need more immediate attention than scientists can offer. Cost effectiveness, scale, and scientists" inability to simulate blood cells suggest in vitro meat might not be ready for another decade.

CONTACT: Disembodied Cuisine Project; PETA

BREYANNA REITMEYER is an editorial intern at E.